LONDON LETTER

Has TV passed its peak?

BEVERLEY BAXTER October 25 1958
LONDON LETTER

Has TV passed its peak?

BEVERLEY BAXTER October 25 1958

Has TV passed its peak?

LONDON LETTER

BEVERLEY BAXTER

Everyone knows that during the summer months there is normally a seasonal lull on the stock exchange. In brokers’ offices, whether they be in London, New York or Toronto, staff members play gin rummy to fill in the dreary hours until closing time when they are off like a shot to the seaside or the golf course.

But this year has proved the exception. Industrial shares in Britain have risen in market value by some two billion pounds since the crisis days of last February. Nearly every jobber (the middleman in the share game over here) is short of stock, yet almost the only clients who call on the telephone are those who want to buy more shares.

Paper fortune

Thus, in the midst of plenty, the weeping and wailing of the jobbers can be heard throughout Throgmorton Street. Therefore it was in keeping with the sultry atmosphere that there came the Bernstein cloudburst. L.est we become bogged in metaphor let me state that I am referring to the wild boom in the shares of Sidney Bernstein’s television company, known as Granada.

Up, up, up went the shares. In-

stead of playing gin rummy the

brokers shouted buying orders into the telephone. Within a matter of hours the quoted value of the Granada shares had risen by one and a half million pounds. Then the stock exchange authorities stepped in and banned any further

dealings in Granada. On paper Sidney Bernstein and his brother Cecil had made a fortune. In actual fact they were not a shilling better off for the simple reason

that they had not sold a single share. It is to the credit of the Bernstein brothers that they fully approved the intervention of the stock-market committee.

What was behind this wild boom in Granada? Are investors and

speculators so innocent that they stampede like horses when a dog barks? To say “yes” would be an oversimplification. Undoubtedly speculators are subject to panic just as they are to sudden enthusiasms, but they do not normally go full out for a stock as if their fortunes depended on it. It must be remembered that in Britain easy money is not taxed. The investor must pay tax on his dividends but a capital gain goes scot free. In fairness let it be noted that he cannot charge his capital losses against his income tax. But this scramble for Granada was not an isolated incident although it was certainly an outstanding one. Actually there had been considerable publicity in the newspapers about the remarkable success and rich rewards attained by the backers of commercial television.

There were many of us who wrongly believed that the pioneers in this venture would have their fingers burned. Lord Kemsley, the newspaper proprietor, was one of the original ITV investors but he pulled out early in the game. And there were others who followed his example.

What then is the situation of British commercial television today? Will it continue to expand?

Will it draw more and more of the viewing public away from the state - controlled BBC screen? Above all will it be an increasing threat to the publishers of newspapers, magazines and books? And finally, will the living theatre survive as a mere curiosity left over from a distant past?

Let us deal with the newspapers first. When the challenge of TV reached its full impact, newspaper shares went into a steady decline. It was said that the press barons were no longer working for themselves but for their employees. Holders of newspaper shares were so pessimistic that it seemed as if there were nothing but sellers.

But look at the picture today. Here, in shillings, is the story of the principal newspaper

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continued from page 14

“Under mass publicity’s overpowering influence we tend to dress alike, think alike, read alike”

shares for the first eight months of the year, showing the highest and lowest stock-market quotations as compared with the price today:

High Low Today

Beaverbrook .. 13/10 11/10 13/6

Daily Mail ... 36/29/35/-

Daily Mirror .. 13/9 8/9 13/3

Kemsley...... 26/9 19/4 26/-

Newnes (magazines) ...... 58/41/57/-

W. H. Smith

(bookstalls) . 58/9 43/6 56/-

Sunday Pictorial 16/6 10/3 16/3

I have picked out these shares because they give a clear picture of what is happening today in newspaper investment. It shows with unchallengeable accuracy that the threat of television both as a purveyor of news and entertainment and as a medium of advertising has reached its zenith.

Quite obviously there is a limit to the amount of money which advertisers can spend, and it is equally obvious that advertisers must portion out their expenditure among newspapers, magazines, films and billboard display. Since neither newspapers nor magazines can exist without revenue from advertising, and since they do continue to exist, it is obvious that the first wild rapture of commercial TV both as a medium of entertainment and as a medium of advertisement has expended itself.

The other night in my house a half dozen of us sank down in our armchairs to enjoy, or at any rate to experience, an evening of television. As it was September we naturally lit the grate fire for its warmth and pleasant companionship.

The program, as usual, was a combination of good and bad, with advertising interludes in which decent-looking young men or women extolled the heavenly qualities of a detergent called HOBO or some such word. HOBO was the answer to a housewife’s prayer. HOBO was the way to a new life and a new heaven.

I looked at my guests. Two of them were practically asleep. A third was reading a copy of Maclean's which had arrived that day. My daughter was writing a letter to a naval officer.

One of the curses of modern civilization is the destruction of individualism. Under the overpowering influence of mass publicity we tend to dress alike, think alike and read alike. The art of conversation has been superseded by standardized talk. Self-expression has been crushed by mass suggestion. In fact, the process has gone so far that the ambition of most people is to be indistinguishable from others of their own set.

The newspapers play their part by recording that Mrs. Rosedale gave a delightful cocktail party at her charming home. The guests were much the same people who were at the cocktail party which Mrs. Belvedere threw the day before. They dressed in the fashion which means that not only do they talk alike

and drink alike but they look alike.

However. I see a gleam of hope on the horizon. In London the living theatre is experiencing a genuine revival. We have no Shaw, no Barrie, no Galsworthy nor even a Knoblock as in the early 1920s but the theatre as an institution is emerging from the shadows. With this new vibrancy we shall. I hope, sec the final exit of the Angry Young Men cult in the theatre which glorified the decay of the human spirit.

In America the TV networks are facing a crisis. The audience slump began some time ago and only an unpredictable extrovert, such as Randolph Churchill, or a program of outstanding attraction can bring back the missing viewers.

Let me end this treatise with a reference to a man I have already mentioned —Lord Kemsley. He owns a group of newspapers but his pride and joy is the Sunday Times which, incidentally, bears no relation whatsoever to the Daily Times although many people associate them in their minds.

As I said earlier, Lord Kemsley was one of the pioneers of commercial television. Had he remained a sponsor he would have reaped a rich reward, but his heart was with his papers and he found he could not have two loyalties.

Instead he decided to concentrate most of his endeavors on the Sunday Times. Although just past his middle seventies he proceeded to give the Sunday Times such energetic editorship and promotion that it became the talk not only of Fleet Street but of the country at large. He bought the memoirs of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke which gave the public the inside story of the top direction of the war against Hitler's Germany. That was the beginning but by no means the end. He believed that there was a public which was sick of sensationalism-and sex and wanted to be informed and not merely entertained.

His editorial associates caught his enthusiasm. Instead of dealing with the news of the day and the gossip of the town they published news and reviews and comment of permanent value. Quite rightly Kemsley advertised extensively and because people like a success story the Sunday Times gave space each week to tell of its rising circulation. It is now nearing a sale of one million, and because of its high-income type of reader the rate for advertisements is very stiff.

Therefore as both a writer and a reader I rejoice in the troubles that are confronting television. I am aware of its virtues as well as its companionship but they do not blind me to the basic fact that television requires nothing more from its vast audience than an infinite acquiescence toward a medium that by its very character must accept mediocrity as a substitute for excellence.

Long live the written word! And long live the actual spoken word in its purity, its sound and its power. Now I shall take from my shelves a remarkable book on the Vichy government of defeated France and read it in the garden while the leaves of the giant pear tree drop tears in memory of a summer that never was. *